#ForThoseWhoBleed: Operation Period and the Movement for Menstrual Freedom

Operation Period coined the term “menstrual freedom” to embody its message: taking on systems of oppression and injustice that hinder menstruators in hope of achieving a better world.

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Operation Period’s international team works with organizations overseas to provide funding for menstrual products, doctor’s visits, educational materials and more. (Twitter)

2015 was a busy year for periods. NPR dubbed it “The Year of The Period,” and Cosmopolitan called it “The Year The Period Went Public.” That same year, Operation Period (formerly ROSIE) was founded by Manju Bangalore and peers, with the goal of making sure every person who bleeds is not held back by their period.

Since it began in 2015, Operation Period has grown exponentially. At the time of publication, Operation Period has addressed over 16,000 periods and delivered over 240,000 menstrual products. The nonprofit works domestically to distribute menstrual products to low-income and homeless populations through local shelters, schools and organizations. Operation Period’s international team works with organizations overseas to provide funding for menstrual products, doctor’s visits, educational materials and more. 

Operation Period is committed to making global change for menstruators as they work to create a world where no one is hindered from living their lives as a result of menstruation.

In the United States:

  • 23 percent of students have struggled to afford period products and 16 percent have chosen to buy period products over food or clothes as a result of the pandemic.
  • 77 percent of students believe there needs to be more in-depth education about menstrual health.
  • One in five women struggle to afford period products every month
  • There have been reports of federal prison inmates only receiving three pads per month.
  • 31 states still tax menstrual products as luxury items.

Globally:

  • 70 percent of all reproductive diseases in India are a result of poor menstrual hygiene.
  • 61 percent of girls in Kenya miss school because menstrual products are inaccessible.
  • Eight out of 10 girls in Western Nepal are banished from their homes and must partake in Chhaupadi, living in menstrual huts while on their period.
  • 75 percent of Indian women who live in cities buy their pads wrapped in a bag or newspaper due to the shame that is associated with menstruation.

Barriers exist for many people that make accessing menstrual products difficult as a result of their gender, race, nationality, zip code, sexual orientation or disability. 

These barriers are the result of systemic injustice occurring on a global scale that has direct implications on all menstruators, limiting all who menstruate from living their lives freely. It is by challenging these systems and addressing menstrual inequities and oppression that Operation Period believes we can achieve menstrual freedom. 

Menstrual freedom is a term within the menstrual justice space coined by Operation Period in January of 2021. Bangalore—physicist, actor and current executive director of Operation Period—spoke to Ms. about the organization, menstrual freedom, and how we can achieve it.


Madison Gusler: What is Operation Period?

Manju Bangalore: Operation Period is a youth-led and youth-run nonprofit that fights for menstrual freedom through five avenues: art, advocacy, education, community engagement and direct or mutual aid.

Gusler: What is the purpose of the organization? What are your goals?

Bangalore: Our big thing is menstrual freedom. In the period space, menstrual equity is the term traditionally used, which was coined by Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, who is an incredible leader in this space. Menstrual equity is a legal framework to describe the lack of access to menstrual products that menstruators face, but we’ve kind of expanded on that. Jennifer even mentioned: Menstrual equity is the floor, not the ceiling.

Last year, we coined the term menstrual freedom. The dictionary definition of menstrual freedom is the abolition of any social, political, economic system or situational barrier that prevents a person from experiencing their period in an empowered and dignified way. That’s really the core of our mission, fighting for a world that has accomplished menstrual freedom. This means addressing any system that is anti-Black, which includes most, if not all, of the systems that we have in place currently. It’s addressing transphobia, it’s ensuring people have access to resources and education beyond just products, and it means abolishing the prison industrial complex.

Menstrual freedom differs from traditional attempts to address period inequity because it is about more than providing products to those without access. While Operation Period does work to address periods by distributing menstrual products, they recognize this as one immediate solution to a larger problem. Operation Period believes that to be truly free we “must abolish the oppressive systems which limit access to menstrual products and prevent true autonomy.”

Menstrual freedom broadens the period space, inviting menstruators to question and challenge the systems that limit them, the violence, stigma and abuse they face simply for bleeding.

Challenging these systems includes challenging the structures that have limited menstruation with gendered language. While convenient to advocate for women and girls, it isn’t actually inclusive, serving to further suppress marginalized groups. People of all gender identities can menstruate, such as trans men and nonbinary people—it is not just women. Operation Period fights for everyone’s right to accessible, affordable menstruation and health education, which is why they believe “when we don’t fight for everyone who bleeds, we claim victory when the fight is not over.” Operation Period commits to challenging the systems limiting menstruators by using nongendered language on their social media/website. Similarly to this article, gendered language is only used when citing statistics that polled a singular demographic. 

Menstrual freedom is the abolition of any social, political, economic system or situational barrier that prevents a person from experiencing their period in an empowered and dignified way.

Bangalore provided more detail on how Operation Period continues to fight for menstrual freedom:

Bangalore: The first step is education. That’s why things like, Noname Book Club and similar groups exist. We also have a book club with Code Red and the Women’s Relief Initiative called Reading for the Revolution.

I think education is such a critical step because if we aren’t all consuming material that pushes our thinking, allows us to think critically and get to the core of what we’re trying to accomplish, then we’re not on the same page. We don’t have to be completely on the same page. Obviously people are going to have different solutions and ideas about what steps we need to take, but we need to be on the same page. For example, understanding that abolition is necessary, addressing anti-Black systems is necessary, etc.

The second step is building community and a network of people we can rely on and support, because this work isn’t possible in a silo. Which is why we value our partners, like Code Red Collective so much. We coined this term menstrual freedom in early 2021, but it isn’t a new ideology. People have been doing tangible work for so long, in terms of educating their neighbors, working beyond the product, towards access to supplies and access to health education, etc. For example, creating art that dismantles the stigma around periods. People have been doing a lot of that work. We just identified a name for that frame of work.

Operation Period works to achieve a future with menstrual freedom for all who menstruate, where menstruators can live in an empowered and dignified way. This is a long way away, but Operation Period works alongside partner organizations on a global and local level to reach their goals.

“Education is such a critical step because if we aren’t all consuming material that pushes our thinking, allows us to think critically and get to the core of what we’re trying to accomplish, then we’re not on the same page.”

In 2021, Operation Period partnered with For The Menstruator in Kenya to provide 300 menstruators in Busia County with reusable menstrual hygiene kits. In Bangladesh, they’ve partnered with For The Menstruator and Awareness 360 to provide 100 sex workers with reusable menstrual hygiene kits and 500 sex workers with educational materials on menstruation.

In the U.S., Operation Period staff has met with local, state and federal legislators to raise awareness about menstrual injustice and they’ve worked to make menstrual product dispensers free and accessible on as many school campuses as possible at the chapter level.

Every day, the menstrual movement works towards a world where menstrual freedom can be a reality #forthosewhobleed.

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About

Madison Gusler is an editorial fellow for Ms. and a senior at Long Island University Global. She is majoring in global studies and minoring in international relations.